river stream with snow on banks

Life as a River: When Trauma Interrupts the Flow

There is an OT model called the Kawa Model, developed by Michael Iwama, that conceptualizes life as a river. A river has a riverbed and riverbanks, just as we exist within an environment that offers containment and constraint in our lives. A river may have stones or tree routes jutting into it and changing its course, just as elements in our environment present barriers and new directions in life. A river has driftwood and other debris floating in it that may also impact its flow, just as people and events impact our lives.

Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing®, developed the Stream of Life model, which also depicts life through a river metaphor. In the Stream of Life model, the river represents our life energy. The riverbanks support the flow of the river, and the river has access to support from the trees and the earth. When a trauma knocks us out of the path of the river, we may get trapped in a high energy vortex and need support to get back into the flow of our lives. Or, alternatively, we may work so hard to avoid obstacles in the river that we miss out on moments of connection and joy.

When we bring these two models together, there are some key commonalities:

  • The river represents our life or our connection with life energy.
  •  The riverbanks and riverbed represent our environment which offers containment and support.
  •  Obstacles may get in our way, knock us out of flow, or trap us in in a vortex that keeps us from engaging in life.
  •  Even when we lose connection, the river keeps on flowing.
  •  We can tap into supports to bring ourselves back into the flow of the river.

Trauma healing doesn’t happen when we get swept away in the river or trapped in a trauma vortex. Healing happens when we have access to supports and enough resources to move through and around life’s obstacles. Though healing, we can find flexibility to explore a slightly different path and do things a little differently. We can learn to dip our toes into the trauma vortex without being pulled in. We can learn to come back into our own life flow, access the supports we need, and find our way back to the life we want to live.